Friday, July 26, 2013

Maturity: Part II

Okay, it was more than a week you had to wait for the new post, but here it is!:

In the summer of '09 I was working at an overnight camp in Pennsylvania. During a woodworking activity, a little girl came to me asked me how to make a birdhouse and showed me the model we had on display. I was about to open my mouth to explain to her how we could do it, but immediately she said, "Never mind. It's too hard." It's a shame. At age ten I made a twelve-room birdhouse. The model the camp had was a much simpler version, and one that many kids her age could make given enough patience and helpful instruction.

I can't even begin to tell you how many times, at camps and other similar situations, I have encouraged kids I worked with to take on projects more complex than what they're used to-- even only slightly more so-- only to hear them lament that they don't even want to try because it's too hard. Most adults wouldn't give this attitude a second thought (unless it was something they were expected to learn, like reading or math). After all, they're just kids and shouldn't be expected to dive headfirst into an ambitious project until they're at least college age. Adults certainly wouldn't call them immature.

How about a twelve-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome who is able to fully engage herself in and complete an ambitious woodworking project (which I did every summer at day camp) but has difficulty making eye contact, misses social cues about when a joke is over, or gets incredibly frustrated when the project she is working on isn't going the way she hoped? She is called immature because she has difficulty navigating social situations and also because she has a "meltdown" when a project frustrates her. These same adults wouldn't think to use the word "mature" in response to her trying an adult-level creative project. 

This is really absurd when you think about it. Many kids-- hell, probably even most kids-- would simply abandon the project when they realize it's too hard for them. That way, there are no meltdowns or frustrations of any sorts. Somehow, this child is deemed more mature than a child who attempts a difficult project while KNOWING (as I did) that an emotional meltdown would happen at some point during the process of the project. It was a risk I was willing to take. 

There is too much emphasis on social maturity and absolutely zero on intellectual maturity. What a revolting double standard, one with potentially serious emotional costs to kids with AS! Personally, I find it disheartening and frustrating that the average, socially "mature" kid can't finish what he or she started while most people don't give it a second thought. We need to start praising kids with AS for their intellectual maturity and single-minded focus that enables them to finish what they have started, even if it means a meltdown-- or several-- along the way.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Maturity: Part I

Today I met up with an old friend from summer camp whom I hadn't seen since 1997. She came with her wife and three kids, and together we had a picnic in the park and then went to the pool to go swimming. The pool has two water slides-- one of which is a speed slide-- and so these kids were really excited. We were there for maybe twenty minutes when someone's toddler pooped in the baby pool. The entire facility was shut down (I guess all of the pools there are on the same filtration system) for the rest of the day. My friend's five-year-old daughter said, "Aww! This is so unfair!" But with a promise of ice cream and a game of mini-golf, everything was okay.

Had this happened when I was five-- or even ten-- I would have thrown a fit, maybe even cried. People like to dismiss such behavior from a ten-year-old as "immature." Actually, it's more complicated than that. These kids were probably very excited to go to the pool and go on the slides. They were probably excited when their two moms mentioned the day before what they would do on Saturday, but then they probably forgot about it until it was time to go. In other words, it was not on the forefront of their mind all the time. As you know, we Aspies tend to get hyperfocused on things. Had I been promised a trip to a pool with a couple water slides at age ten, I would have thought about it all week, non-stop. To put so much energy into thinking about something so intensely only to be disappointed is not something that is easy for kids with AS to let roll off their backs. At least in the case of the pool, my friend promised her kids another visit in a few weeks. 

It can be even harder if nothing can be done about the situation, or if the disappointment involves a special interest. When I was thirteen, I was obsessed with The Rocketeer movie and wanted to find copies of the original The Rocketeer comics. There was no eBay when I was thirteen, and so I had to rely on the manager of a comic book store to see if he could track down The Rocketeer for me. On a Thursday afternoon, while I was at day camp, the manager called me and said that he found a copy of The Rocketeer. I was excited and the prospect of getting this comic book was on my mind all evening and the next day. I couldn't wait until the end of the day at camp on Friday so my mom could drive me to the comic book store. After nearly twenty-four hours of intense anticipation, the manager of the comic book store showed me the comic book that he had found-- an adaptation of The Rocketeer movie, which I already had. I had the wherewithal not to make a scene, and just told the manager that it was the wrong comic, thanked him, and left. Back in the car with my mom, I didn't yell and scream and throw a fit, but I was trying to keep the lid on some kind of outburst. I spoke angrily about how I got so excited for nothing, and then audibly wondered what was wrong with me that I was upset about this at all.

This situation is not an illustration of immaturity on my part but rather the results of a neurological makeup that caused me to be intensely excited about and hyperfocused on something only to have it taken away. Parents and friends of Aspies, how many of you had to cancel a vacation, for example, because of some bizarre circumstances that were beyond your control? I doubt it just rolled off your back. You probably didn't throw a fit, but I bet some of you cried. Just because a botched trip to a pool or the failed acquisition of a comic book may not seem as significant as a cancelled vacation to Hawaii doesn't mean the intense disappointment is any less real.

Stayed tune for "Maturity: Part II," coming next week!